Super Secret Stats: LeBron James and Playoff Shot Distribution

Saving the Skyhook was recently granted access to the NBA’s super-secret advanced statistics page, a web source of endless information that will become available to the general public once the league figures out  a way to make it more user-friendly.  But until then you can get some of what it offers right here, as we’ll be exploring and playing with this supposedly and expectedly awesome application each day from here on out until the 2012-2013 season begins (and likely after that too, of course) on October 30th.

Without further ado, to the stats!

May 24, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) goes up for a shot in the lane against Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) during the first half in game six of the Eastern Conference semifinals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

Super-Secret Stat: In the playoffs and prior to game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, LeBron James attempted 39.4% of his shots within eight feet of the basket.  For the remainder of the postseason 49.4% of shots came from that distance, a full 10 percent increase in frequency.

Analysis: Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, you may remember, firmly planted James and the Miami Heat’s backs against the wall on the road down 2-1 to the feisty Indiana Pacers.  This was a must-win if there ever was one in a non-elimination game for the favorites, and James was facing as much scrutiny as ever for a middling performance up to that point in the series.  How did he and his teammates respond? LBJ’s 40 point, 18 rebound, nine assist performance is now the stuff of NBA postseason legend, and Miami overcame a halftime deficit to take control of the series again.

Watching that game and the rest of the playoffs unfold, a clear shift emerged in James’ play that evolved and became ever-evident in games 4 and 5 of the NBA Finals.  After Chris Bosh’s injury in game 1 against Indiana, Erik Spolestra embraced small-ball and played LeBron as Miami’s de-facto power forward for the remainder of the Heat’s title run.  Relying on his unparalleled versatility on both ends of the floor, Miami went with this lineup even as Bosh returned to the floor and full strength won a championship largely because of it.

Over that process much was made of James embracing his new role as post-up option, rebounder, and “big” in general and rightfully so; he appeared more comfortable with his back to the basket than ever and more reluctant to launch the mid to long range jumpers that are the bane of stat-heads everywhere.  But was that actually the case? Did LeBron adjust his scoring game that much from that masterful game 4 performance and on? The answer is one you expect but fascinating nonetheless – yes.  A big, big yes.

James’ shot distribution in the eight games before that Indy game and the 15 including and following it tell the entire story.  Prior to that fateful Heat win and visceral LeBron performance, 39.4% of his field goal attempts came from inside eight feet, 19.4% from eight to 16 feet, 21.9% from 16-24 feet, and 19.4% from 24 feet and beyond.  From that point on his shot locations are as follows – 49.4%, 17.9%, 16.9%, and 15.8%.

The latter set of numbers is a big departure from the former, with James increasing his shot frequency from close by a full 10 percent and lowering it from mid, long, and longer.  The NBA world has longed for James to embrace his power game as a true post force, and he clearly realized the advantages of that too in Bosh’s absence and with the Heat on the brink of elimination.  Such a drastic change in offensive approach is hardly circumstance, and the eye-test even did a better job of displaying LeBron newfound philosophy.  But it’s nice when the numbers back up what we see and in this instance that’s obviously the case.

What will be interesting to note is whether this trend continues into the coming season and the remainder of LeBron’s career.  Spoelstra and the rest of the Miami organization have seemed to embrace small-ball fulltime, and offseason reports say that Bosh is currently bulking up to play more Center.  But only time will tell there, and James – despite the Heat’s overwhelming success spurred by small-ball and his shot selection – has always hinted he prefers to play on the perimeter.  Will LeBron drift to his more usual spot on the wings and top of the key during this mostly useless (for teams like Miami, at least) regular season? Or use the season’s first 82 games to hone his deadly but still under-developed post attack?

A combination of the two is most likely, as Miami will undoubtedly  try to preserve LeBron’s body as much as possible until the postseason arrives.  But the Heat will need to integrate Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis into their playoff plans at some point, and there’s no reason to think they’ll abandon the strategy that won them the 2012 title once Spring finally rolls around.  When and how much they go that route during the droll of the regular season will go a long way towards determining home-court advantage in the playoffs, though, and considering that the rest of the league better hope the Heat don’t go small often.